Suffering Makes Us Stronger...But Why?

They decorate colleges across America, my Facebook newsfeed is brimming with them, and for some reason, I’m always torn between fascination and annoyance when I confront them. If you’re thinking “political shouting matches” – well, you’re probably right – but this time I’m talking about motivational quotes, particularly motivational quotes about suffering. Suffering, and defeating it, are often the subject of catchy lines, in trendy fonts, across mountain-scapes. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Inspirational quotes offer us some variation on this theme. I think the appeal of these formulations has two parts:

First, it gives meaning and purpose to suffering. This sentence fosters the belief that suffering is happening for a reason, and, consequently, the world happens for a reason.

Second, it gives us a sense of control. We have power, not only over the suffering, but over our response to it. Hiding in this statement is another statement as well: We will make ourselves stronger by defeating suffering.

Perhaps the easiest answer to these inspirational quotes is dismissal. Try to power play with the universe, just try. The skeptic argues. Ultimately the universe wins. We die. I admit sometimes “the skeptic” speaks in my own voice. Like I said, I’m frustrated – frustrated with the pretty-packaged enthusiasm of “inspirationalism.”

Yet I’m still fascinated by inspirational messages.

But – why? Well, I have both suffered and watched others suffer. I want something to say. I want an answer. I can philosophize on “the problem of evil” or “the problem of pain” – but most importantly, it is a question that demands an answer from me.

Is there meaning in suffering? What about meaning in the world? Is there a plan? I experience these questions most when, selfishly I admit, I personally am the one suffering. But I also desire happiness for other people. 

And I’m not alone. This desire is a great human trait. We find it in history, in literature, in art, and in science. Seriously, who has browsed through “Humans of New York” and not wanted each person profiled to live a happy life? We want their lives to have meaning too. I’ve seen too much love for my voice to be the skeptic’s voice. Still, something nags me at the words “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Makes me stronger. 

Is that really what I want?

Well, no. Not exactly. I do want to be stronger, but only so I can have something else, like the admiration of my friends or recognition as a cool person. This realization has helped me understand St. Paul’s frequently quoted words about suffering from his Letter to the Romans. 

" . . .We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character. . .”

Exactly! You might be thinking. Suffering makes you stronger! But read on.

 “. . .and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5).

Suffering produces many things, but ultimately the most important is hope. St. Paul is clear. We don’t don’t become stronger and that’s it. We become hopeful because of God’s love.  This matches my realization that I don’t really want to be stronger for its own sake, I want to be loved.

Furthermore, St. Paul deliberately draws us back to God’s love which is “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” We are given the love that makes the hope possible. The love makes the hope not disappoint us. We are given these things. I think that’s important. Hiding in inspirational mantras is that second appeal I mentioned earlier: the sense of control. But St. Paul’s ideal is different. Suffering for a Christian is not just another power play. It is not simply another way for us to flex our muscles and create ourselves. 

God’s love poured into our hearts is radically different than the other options. It’s not a stronger, leaner, tougher me who can simply take more. It’s not a submission to the mindlessness of the universe. It’s a question of whether God’s love has given meaning to our suffering. Will he be with us, strengthening us through his outpouring of love to make us strong, full of character, and ultimately, hopeful?

For me, yes, but for you, I have to ask you, which do you prefer?